Principate Army – Origins

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Structure of the Principate.

The professionalization of the Roman army after Marius’ reforms led directly to the use and abuse of consular power by individual generals seeking to usurp the power of the Senate. Consequently the last five decades of the Republic were characterized by two important features: the jostling for power and status by a number of dynamic political players, and the calamitous civil wars generated by their personal, be it selfish or altruistic, ambitions. It was the last of these republican warlords who was to emerge victorious as the first Roman emperor under the new name of Augustus. Officially he was addressed as princeps, that is the first citizen of the state, and his reign was the beginning of the Principate.

The army of the Principate established by Augustus drew heavily on the nomenclature and traditions of the dead Republic. But it was new. He decided to meet all the military needs of the empire from a standing, professional army, so that there was no general need to raise any levies through conscription (dilectus), which in actual fact he did on only two occasions, namely following the military crises in Pannonia (AD 6) and Germania (AD 9). Military service was now a lifetime’s occupation and career, and pay and service conditions were established that took account of the categories of soldier in the army: the praetorians (cohortes praetoriae), the citizen soldiers of the legions (legiones), and the non-citizens of the auxiliaries (auxilia). Enlistment was not for the duration of a particular conflict, but for twenty-five years (sixteen for the praetorians), and men were sometimes retained even longer. At the end of service there was a fixed reward, on the implementation of which the soldier could rely. The loyalty of the new army was to the emperor, as commander-in-chief, and neither to the Senate nor the Roman people.

Cassius Dio, writing of the events of 29 BC, reports two speeches made before Augustus by his counsellors, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Caius Maecenas, in which the best way of securing the continuation of the Roman state and defence of its empire was discussed. Agrippa apparently advocated the retention of the traditional system (by which men would be conscripted to serve short periods, and then released into civilian life). Maecenas, on the other hand, argued for ‘a standing army (stratiôtas athanatous in Cassius Dio’s Greek) to be recruited from the citizen body [i.e. legiones], the allies [i.e. auxilia] and the subject nations’, and despite Agrippa’s contention that such an army could form a threat to the security of the empire, carried the day.

Dialogues were a convention of ancient historiography, and these speeches need not be judged the true record of a real debate between the two. In part at least they reflect the political situation of Cassius Dio’s own time and were aimed at a contemporary emperor, perhaps that psychopathic fratricide and builder of the eponymous baths in Rome, Caracalla (r. AD 211–217). Nevertheless, in 13 BC, after he had returned from Gaul, Augustus ordained that terms of service in the legions should in future be fixed at sixteen years, to be followed by a four or five-year period ‘under the flag’, sub vexillo, to be rewarded by a fixed cash gratuity, though this could be commuted to a plot of land, measuring 200 iugera (c. 50 ha), in a veteran-colony in the provinces.

However, the scheme did not work, for in AD 5 discontent was rife and in the following year major army reforms were carried out by the emperor. The fundamental problem was that veterans were discontent with sub vexillo, which apparently entitled them to lighter duties after their sixteen-year stint.5 But no government, ancient or modern, is noted for keeping its promises. So some alterations were made to the conditions of service. The number of years that the new recruit had to serve under arms was raised to twenty years, with a further period (not specified, but probably at least five years) in reserve. The cash gratuity was now fixed at 12,000 sestertii (3,000 denarii) for an ordinary ranker, a lump sum the equivalent of more than thirteen years’ pay.

Seemingly as part of this same package, but recorded by Cassius Dio under the following year (AD 6), Augustus masterminded the creation of a military treasury (aerarium militare). Its function was to arrange the payment of bounties to soldiers. Augustus opened the account with a large gift of money from his own funds, some 170 million sestertii according to his own testimony, but in the longer term the treasury’s revenues were to come from two new taxes imposed from this time onwards on Roman citizens: a 5 per cent tax on inheritances and a 1 per cent tax on auction sales in Rome. The introduction of these taxes caused uproar, but taxation was preferable to displacement, acrimony and ruin, which had been the consequences of land settlement programmes of the civil war years. Augustus thus shifted a part of the cost of the empire’s defence from his own purse to the citizenry at large. But the wages of serving soldiers (225 denarii per annum for an ordinary ranker) continued to be paid by the imperial purse; Augustus could brook no interference, or divided loyalties there. The management of the army, particularly its pay and benefits, were from the start one of what Tacitus calls ‘the secrets of ruling’. Power was protected and preserved by two things, soldiers and money. And so the security and survival of the emperor and his empire was now the sole responsibility of the emperor and his soldiers.

The legions had been the source of Augustus’ power. However, serious mutinies broke out in Pannonia and Germania in AD 14 partly because the legionaries were worried about their conditions of service after the death of Augustus, so closely had he become associated with their emoluments. But there was obviously significant discontent with low rates of pay, especially in contrast to the praetorians, long service, and unsuitable land allocations. Here Tacitus takes up the story:

Finally Percennius had acquired a team of helpers ready for mutiny. Then he made something like a public speech. ‘Why’, he asked, ‘obey, like slaves, a few commanders of centuries, fewer still of cohorts? You will never be brave enough to demand better conditions if you are not prepared to petition – or even threaten – an emperor who is new and still faltering [i.e. Tiberius]. Inactivity has done quite enough harm in all these years. Old men, mutilated by wounds, are serving their thirtieth year or fortieth year. And even after your official discharge your service is not finished; for you stay on with the eagle as a reserve (sub vexillo), still under canvas – the same drudgery under another name! And if you manage to survive all these hazards, even then you are dragged off to a remote country and “settled” in some waterlogged swamp or uncultivated mountainside. Truly the army is harsh, unrewarding profession! Body and soul are reckoned at ten asses a day – and with this you have to find clothes, weapons, tents, and bribes for brutal centurions if you want to avoid chores.’

Percennius, a common soldier, was the ringleader of the mutineers in Pannonia, then garrisoned by three legions (VIII Augusta, VIIII Hispana, XV Apollinaris) based in a camp near Emona (Ljubljana). Once the mutiny was crushed, he was to be hunted down and executed for his troubles.

These mutinies clearly showed the danger of having too many legions (there were four involved in the Germania mutiny) in the same camp. Also, living in tents, even during the summer months, on the Rhine and Danube frontiers must have been miserable to say the least. The bleakness of life under canvas is the subject of a telling passage of Tertullian: ‘No soldier comes with frolics to battle nor does he go to the front from his bedroom but from tents that are light and small, where there is every kind of hardship, inconvenience, and discomfort.’

As mentioned above, in the time of Augustus the annual rate of pay for a legionary was 900 sestertii (225 denarii), Percennius’ piddling ‘ten asses a day’. But Percennius’ complaint was all in vain, the basic rate remaining so until Domitianus, who increased the pay by one-third, that is, to 1,200 sestertii (300 denarii) a year. Wages were paid in three annual instalments, the first payment being made on the occasion of the annual new year parade when the troops renewed their oath to the emperor. Official deductions were made for food and fodder (for the mule belonging to the mess-group, contubernium). In addition, each soldier had to pay for his own clothing, equipment and weapons, but these items were purchased back by the army from the soldier or his heir when he retired or died. These were the official charges. As we know, Tacitus records that one of the complaints of the mutineers was that they had to pay sweeteners to venal centurions in order to gain exemption from fatigues. Another complaint was that time-expired soldiers were being fobbed off with grants of land in lieu of the gratuity of 12,000 sestertii, and these plots tended to be either waterlogged or rock-strewn.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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